Historically, urban segregation in Mexico City was caused by topography
and colonial land use, with the flood-prone areas to the east of
the city being occupied by the lower classes. With high immigration
and birth rates during the greater part of the 20th century, the
city’s population grew to 18 million, of which over 60 per
cent are currently considered to be ‘poor’ or ‘moderately
poor’. The built-up area expanded from 23 square kilometres
to 154,710 square kilometres between 1900 and 2000, engulfing surrounding
towns and villages and invading steep hillsides and dried-up lake
beds on which slums developed. Initially, highly crowded one- or
two-roomed rented tenements, called vecindades, provided housing
for the poor. With intensive industrialization and concurrent urbanization
after 1940, peripherally located colonias populares – irregular
settlements comprised of self-built and mainly owneroccupied dwellings
– emerged as the leading lower-middle and low-income housing
The immense scale of Mexico City’s housing poverty andthe
highly complex, dynamic processes preclude general official or unofficial
definitions of slums comparable to the English word. Instead, terms
such as colonias populares (lower class neighbourhoods) are used.
Recently, ‘areas with high marginalization indices’
have been identified.The following five types of slum are identifiable:
populares: the most critical housing conditions are
in the newer or unconsolidated irregular settlements, or colonias
populares, resulting from unauthorized land development and construction,
with deficits in urban services, often in high-risk areas and with
dubious property titles. Most settlements have been improved to
varying degrees as property is regularized, infrastructure and services
put in and houses solidly built. Yet, the colonias never become
completely regular. Legalized properties become irregular again
through intestate inheritance, dilapidation or fiscal problems.
Irregular settlements constitute roughly half of the urbanized area
and house more than 60 per cent of the population.
rental slums (vecindades): these slums date from the
late 19th century and comprise houses abandoned by the wealthy and
converted into tenements for the poor, providing the model for purpose-built
cheap rental housing. After the 1940s, the production of rented
vecindades continued in the peripheral irregular settlements; but
here, unlike in the inner city, the landlords are often slum dwellers
themselves. About 10 per cent of all housing in Mexico City is in
Ciudades perdidas: this is a broad concept referring
to small-scale pockets of shanty housing on vacant land or undesirable
urban locations. These are no longer quantitatively important as
a form of slum.
de azotea: these are servants’ quarters and makeshift
accommodation on the roofs of apartments or early public housing.
They are almost invariably well located in central areas and provide
0.4 per cent of all of Mexico City’s housing units.
public housing projects:many formally produced,
subsidized owner-occupied housing projects built for the working
classes have become highly deteriorated, with overcrowding and other
social problems. As much as 15 per cent of Mexico City’s population
now live in government-financed housing projects of variable quality.
The vast majority of the precarious settlements’ occupants
are homeowners. Only 7 per cent of the housing in the worst areas
are rented, compared to a metropolitan average of 17.3 per cent.
In the central areas, the traditional vecindades and other rental
accommodation continue to lose population and to be destroyed due
to ageing and land-use changes. Apart from the highly successful
housing reconstruction programme after the 1985 earthquake, further
projects for repopulating the city centre have had limited impact
since they are severely hampered by a lack of viable finance and
land for development.
Many public housing projects throughout the city are becoming slums.
Inadequate self-administration of these projects has led to lack
of maintenance, invasion and degradation of public space, structurally
dangerous alterations and bad neighbourhood relations. All of this
is aggravated by the original cheap construction, low space standards
and the increasing impoverishment of their working-class occupants,
smitten by unemployment, alcohol and drug dependency, social violence
and high crime rates.
Irregular settlements continue to develop in a more dispersed and
differentiated manner, especially in the metropolitan municipalities.
The city is growing disproportionately to demographic increase,
accommodating smaller families and an ageing population. Nevertheless,
most of the city has been built now, and what happens within existing
colonias will determine the quality of future habitat for the majority
of the poor. The original problems here of precarious construction,
risks from landslides or flooding and insufficient services are
compounded by deterioration and overcrowding. The advantages of
irregular settlements are flexibility and relatively large plots
that accommodate extended families and second or third generations.
In the last decade, financial subsidies have been directed at formal
commercial developments of mass-produced tiny singlefamily houses
on the extreme outskirts of the city.
About two-thirds of Mexico City’s population live in colonias
populares; but by no means should all be considered to be ‘slum
dwellers’. In fact, most colonias contain some degree of social
heterogeneity. The distinguishing characteristic of hopeless slums
is not so much the poverty of all of their inhabitants, but, rather,
the absence of middleand high-income families.
Local government policy towards irregular settlement formation has
been generally laissez faire or even encouraging, with some notable
exceptions of mass evictions. Once established, a colonia popular
will lnormally encounter few problems in obtaining electricity,
although basic infrastructure may take longer, depending upon the
terrain, the location of the settlement, the political climate and
other localized factors. The costs are covered by the inhabitants
and the local governments, with federal subsidies for certain items
in the case of some specific upgrading programmes. Since 2001, the
federal district government (governing the half of Mexico City that
is the nation’s capital) has run an innovative programme providing
credits for home improvements and new extensions to owner occupiers
in the more impoverished colonias populares. This is part of a wider
policy of social investment, including monthly cash subsidies for
the over-70s and the disabled, school breakfasts and community crime-prevention
measures. The housing programme accounts for about one quarter of
the social budget. In addition, the social prosecutor of the same
federal district government runs a scheme called Housing Projects
Rescue, consisting of nonrepayable grants for the maintenance and
repair of public housing. Similar projects might be implemented
in Mexico City’s metropolitan municipalities, though these
have yet to be devised. An evaluation of the immediate and longer-term
effects of credits for home improvement, as well as the housing
project rescue scheme, is premature.
In spite of recent decentralization policies, power and resources
are highly concentrated in central government. Throughout most of
the 20th century, political power was virtually monopolized by the
Revolutionary InstitutionalParty (PRI). Political reform began during
the late 1970s, slowly at first, with electoral successes of opposition
parties being limited to lower levels of government, but gathering
momentum towards the end of the century. The replacement of the
traditional one-party clientism by competitive electioneering has
altered the unwritten rules governing access to benefits and basic
necessities, such as housing credits, urban services, regularization
programmes and social subsidies. The role of political intermediaries
has been undermined or transformed. Political reform is combined
with new social policies that replace collective targeting and aspirations
of global coverage through the individualization of benefits, with
the aim of ‘targeting the most needy’. The practical
effects are, however, uneven and it is unlikely that what the needy
most require is the kind of housing subsidies that are provided,
and even less likely that they will obtain them.
has been extracted from:
UN-Habitat (2003) Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, The Challenge
of Slums, Earthscan, London; Part IV: 'Summary of City Case Studies',